Michael Kirby: Glut the lucky country with polyglots

Students at the University of Sydney enjoyed an evening of personal, inspirational talks by a panel of esteemed globetrotters including the Hon. Michael Kirby last Wednesday.

Organised jointly by The University’s INGSOC and UN Youth, the International Careers Forum scintillated with a panel of speakers who are renowned for their work in the international public sphere. They were former High Court Justice the Hon. Michael Kirby, U.S. Consul General Niels Marquardt, and the ABC’s prizewinning investigative journalist and author, Andrew Fowler.

For a nation that prides itself on its diversity, Australia’s multiculturalism is hampered by its monolingual mindset. Kirby said that polyglots are in a better position to “serv[e] in international agencies” like the United Nation, based on his understanding that languages create deeper cultural empathy.

“We’re very monolingual,” he said, but ended his talk with a positive note. “[Australians] can play a part. We have our disadvantages but we have natural, cunning instinct.”

Other members of the University also lamented Australia’s pro-monolingual policies which to date, includes the non-compulsory learning of languages other than English (LOTE) in public schools.

The Head of the University’s School of Languages and Cultures, Professor Jeffrey Riegel, commented that being multilingual allowed students to become “better informed and more responsible citizens of Australia”.

“Knowledge of a language opens all sorts of windows into the culture, history, and customs of other people,” he added. “Australia’s monolingualism is a cause for concern given our geographic location in the Asia-Pacific and our economic ties with Asian and European countries.”

Alix Pearce, who is the UN Youth Tertiary Officer for NSW and a key organiser of the event, found that there are not “enough pathways to help complete beginners study a language” at the University. She said that “picking up a language for the first time at the University is incredibly difficult”. Nevertheless, Pearce agreed with the Forum speakers on the “extreme importance” of learning languages and assigned its significance to globalisation. The national deficit of polyglots would create a shortage of Australian ambassadorial talent in an increasingly globalising world, she warned.

The benefits of multilingualism are not confined to the public sphere. During the annual meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science, psychologist Ellen Bialystock proclaimed that bilingualism has “certain cognitive benefits and boosts the performance of the brain” so that a person’s capacity to multitask is considerably enhanced.

The event was chaired by Professor David Weisbrot, a former President of the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) and currently a Professor of Legal Policy at the University’s United States Studies Centre.

Vicki Choh
29th October 2011

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